Top 5 Sleeper Video Games of the 2000's
Years later, these gems are still worth your time.
Video game developers are often faced with a tough choice: create a product for a specific genre, or pave a new road forward. This typically comes down to available funds, which is why the conglomerate franchises — take Call of Duty, for instance — are able to jam their newest installments down your throat while doing very little to branch away from previous titles in their library, or the genre's library. They've found their little corner of the industry (or, I guess, big corner) and now rely heavily on a smorgasbord of advertisements to get people interested. But what about the smaller companies, the non-household names, the ones looking to change things up and create something truly fresh but don't have a bottomless pit of cash to siphon from? It's these companies, the underdogs, that have to be strategic and find a balance between innovation and marketing.
Take for example Madworld (2009), a hack-and-slash from Platinum Games. One of the first M-rated games for the Nintendo Wii, Madworld provided players with a Frank Miller inspired black and white world, which players could drench in ruby red blood as they gloriously disposed of bad guys. It was a blast to play, showing innovations in gameplay, level design, and sandbox mechanics. But, this more mature game arrived a bit early for the mostly children-centric Wii. Without enough marketing behind it, many players avoided it as it was simply too out of the ordinary for the console, too far from the status quo. Because of the low marketing and lack of voice actor fame, it only brought in around $150,000 (not adjusted for inflation) in the United States during its first six months. And just like that, it was lost to the gaming wind.
We call games like these sleepers: something great that only a handful of people know about because the masses "slept" on trying them. But even with lower than desired sales, sleepers often push technical and gameplay boundaries, opening doors for the industry in more ways than none. Sure, they're not perfect, but they're still well worth your time.
Here's my list of the Top 5 Sleeper Video Games of the 2000's that still deserve your attention.
THE SABOTEUR (2009) — PS3, Xbox 360, PC, iOS, BlackBerry
Developed by Pandemic Studios
Back when World War II games were selling faster than fresh pancakes at a firemen's community breakfast, Pandemic Studios released The Saboteur. Set in Nazi-occupied Paris, players took control of Sean, an Irishmen with a drinking problem and a few grudges against the German army. On a gameplay level, it was a third-person open-world sandbox, allowing players to buy and sell weapons, race foreign vehicles across the French landscape, and scale almost every structure in sight — yes, that included the Eiffel Tower.
Once again taking inspiration from Frank Miller, the game had an oppressive black and white aesthetic that slowly regained its color as players liberated different sections of the city. With this color palette, and the phenomenal soundtrack that consisted of popular 1930's hits, the game was full of historical and, at times, supernatural intrigue.
However, while the gameplay was smooth and the story interesting, players had trouble latching onto the fairly linear world when it first released back in 2009. That, mixed with a lack of side missions and inconsistent progression systems, The Saboteur discouraged multiple playthroughs. Unfortunately, this led to disappointing sales and the ultimate closure of Pandemic Studios.
SHADOWS OF THE DAMNED (2011) — PS3, Xbox 360
Developed by Grasshopper Manufacture
It's hard nowadays to provide gamers with an experience that is truly shocking, but Shadows of the Damned did so with ease back in 2011. It was one of the most horrific and, oddly enough, hilarious games on the market at the time, utilizing grotesque visuals and crude college humor to keep every minute feeling fresh. As demon hunter Garcia Hotspur, you traversed through the gory playground of the Devil, slaying demons and monsters while trying to rescue the love of your life. In other words, a modern take on Dante's Inferno.
As a third-person shooter, players listened to Garcia banter with his personified pistol, Johnson, who could transform into several different weapons as new abilities became available. The sexual innuendos were endless, with each upgrade only furthering the goofiness of the otherwise terrifying world. One weapon in particular, the HotBoner, shot an explosive round that dismembered demons with the push of a button. Other guns fired demon teeth and demon skulls.
The game was developed with the help of Shinji Mikami (the Resident Evil creator), and was in production for nearly six years prior to its release. While reviews were overall favorable, the game couldn't compete with other big-name titles of the year, and ultimately only sold around 24,000 copies in the United States.
GRAND THEFT AUTO: CHINATOWN WARS (2009) — Nintendo DS, PSP, iOS, Android
Developed by Rockstar North
When it comes to open-world games, no franchise is more well-known than Grand Theft Auto. However, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, a mobile exclusive, is one of the few titles in the series that never got its true moment in the spotlight.
Going back to franchise roots, Chinatown Wars provided a birds-eye view of Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered Triad leader. Out for revenge, players partook in all of the Grand Theft Auto fun we've become accustomed to: hijacking vehicles, getting into massive firefights with police and rival gangs, playing national lotteries, and even becoming a drug kingpin. These were all executed smoothly with the Nintendo DS touch controls, as well as the PSP. Even though the graphics were laughably low, even for the mobile market, it was the unique additions of buying and selling narcotics — wow, that feels like a weird element to praise — that made this a true standout in the franchise.
Unfortunately, like most mobile games of the late 2000's, Chinatown Wars couldn't keep up with the push for console-exclusive titles. This led to so-so sales even though reviews were remarkably positive across the board. Before disappearing off everyone's radar, the game took home the 2009 Spike Video Game Award for Best Mobile Game.
X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009) — PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, PS2, Nintendo DS, PSP
Developed by Raven Software
Before the Batman Arkham series stole the show from every other superhero game in existence, it was Raven Software's X-Men Origins: Wolverine that led the pack. Wolverine put you in the leather shoes of Logan: the deadly, invincible, metal-clawed mutant. It was fast, gloriously brutal, and above all else, faithful to the comic book original.
As a third-person action game, players sliced and diced mercenaries like a human blender all the while traversing familiar X-Men locations, from William Stryker's secluded laboratory, to the cold tundra of Alkali Lake. Featuring real-time physical health regeneration, dozens of perks to collect, and classic outfits to unlock, Wolverine still remains, at least in my eye, one of the very best superhero video games ever made.
The problem it faced was its movie counterpart, which was ripped apart by fans and critics alike. Because the game shared the same name it suffered dearly as many didn't even bother giving it a chance. Because of this, it only managed to sell around 43,000 copies in the United States.
SINGULARITY (2010) — PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Developed by Raven Software
Now that Raven Software works with Activision on just about every new Call of Duty, it's easy to forget how fantastic the company's standalone ideas used to be. As the pinnacle of sleeper titles, sci-fi shooter Singularity told the unique story of a US Black Op with the power to alter the state of objects around him, either sending things into the future or reverting them to the past. Set in both 2010 and 1960's Soviet Russia, players broke all the laws of physics in order to bring a sense of balance to a quickly destabilizing world.
At its core, Singularity was a first-person shooter that borrowed ideas from franchises like Bioshock and Battlefield to create a militarized, sci-fi world. The gunplay was tight and responsive, the narrative pacing brilliant, and the ability to age and revert matter still remains one of the most fascinating game mechanics I've ever encountered. It had its flaws, but the sheer creativity behind its concept and execution were exceptional back in 2010.
What kept the title from achieving financial success, however, was the saturation of first-person shooters at the time, and more specifically, the fatigue of science fiction. It also didn't help that 2010 was a huge year for the industry, with Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, and Fallout: New Vegas all stealing the spotlight. Unfortunately, this resulted in Singularity selling less than 16,000 units in the United States. All chances of a sequel were soon dismissed.
What do you think of this Top 5 list? Do you agree, or do you think there are other sleepers that deserve to be listed?
While many of these games can't be found in stores, I highly recommend scouring eBay for a copy of at least one of them. These are true gems, and even a decade later they still manage to impress.